Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ashes from ashes?

I wanted to write something a bit lighter tonight, but I'll be getting back to sexism in the future.
After logging an obscene amount of time playing Skyrim, I came across this game on Steam, it was 5 USD and looked like my style- it's called From Dust, by Ubisoft, and I figured, "Why not?  It's less than lunch at Applebee's."  Of course, I only eat at Applebee's on Veteran's Day because it's free for military (it's not that good), but the logic seems sound.  Last Wednesday, it was on sale for 66% off of 15 dollars, (those guys are great for selling gems at a huge discount, it's worth taking a peak every now and again).  And yes, for clarity's sake, this is on the PC.
It feels like an older game, but it's not.  It was released in July 2011, but it feels like it because it didn't have the budget of Assassin's Creed and other Ubisoft titles), and I had never heard anything about it until a week ago.  Ubisoft is just the publisher, so they fielded this largely as an independent work (I'm sure they provided assistance along the way, too).  And I have to say, it's surprisingly good.  It only took me about 7 hours to beat the story (much of which was spent burning my villagers because they displeased me), and I haven't gotten into the challenges yet, but it has the addictive sandbox-esque quality of the older Sim Cities (not those putrid new attempts at whoring out the name) or Tropico, only set in some time before countries or flags, or even farms, it seems.
It's like a cross between Black and White and Lemmings, only without the combat.  It's a sandbox game that touts the most sophisticated weather simulator found in a game, and it is quite good.  Like B&W, you play a demi-god who has to help your tribe, and as in Lemmings, you have to navigate a series of challenges to advance through the different maps, ultimately attaining the lost power of the ancients (you know, if the ancients were so awesome, you'd think they'd write this stuff down and make schools).  Like B&W, you'll be interacting crudely with the environment- picking up earth/water etc., and dropping it where you want it.  Like Lemmings, there's lots of lava and water to be found, and they're both very likely to kill your poor automatons.
Graphically, From Dust is not awe-inspiring à la Skyrim, but it does have its charms and I only recall one serious glitch throughout the game, and that was during a cut-scene, which occur occasionally.  The environmental effects are very attractive; lava in particular looks enticing and dangerous all at once.  Water on the other hand looks like... water.  It's mostly transparent.  And it flows.  There were some irritating things graphically, and one comes with the territory for this sort of game- there would be little puddles of water which were very difficult to see or target.  The easiest way to deal with them was to dump lots of lava in the area, evaporating it, which is generally fine unless there happened to be all sorts of vegetation in the area- then you'd start a fire, burn down all your villages, and have to start over.  The inverse would also hold, with pockets of lava, and applying a lake-full of water directly to the affected area would fix things (but then you end up with puddles...).  I could move it side to side, zoom in and out, but that third dimension that would have been so useful eluded me (I even... though it shames me to admit... looked in the help).  Not being able to skip cutscenes is an annoyance, but doesn't reduce the experience a great deal.  Slightly restrictive camera controls notwithstanding, the graphics merit a hesitant 7.
Sound is so much easier to get right on a limited budget, and they did marvelously in this regard.  The game is voiced, but in the Bahasa Indonesia language, something that sounds very tribal and generally fits the prehistoric motif (English subtitles mean you won't have to learn another language to figure out what to do, though).  The music is subtle, and does a good job setting the stage and mood.  But the sound effects, particularly the deafening roar of a volcanic eruption, is delightful, window-shaking, and coffee-spill-inducing-spasm-worthy.  In retrospect, it might be a bit too loud, but it is a freakin volcano, right?  The "Help Me!" of tribespeople does get irritating, especially if it's because they can't path to a new totem, but when it's not the AI freaking out it gets your attention; that's the only bad thing I have to say about the sound.  It sets the mood, stays out of the way except when appropriate (the music could stand to be more memorable) and gets a solid 9.
Finally, gameplay.  This is where From Dust shines.  And tanks.  AI is incredibly difficult to write from a programmer's standpoint in a game where the user can essentially literally create their own terrain.  So, taking that into account, from a gamer's standpoint it is incredibly frustrating when the little guy won't step up the 2 foot hump.  Like a cop, an AI programmer's work is often thankless- the only time you get noticed is when something messes up.  If you're doing your job well, your drones do as they're intended and nothing arouses any suspicions.  From that perspective, I think there were only 2 times where I actually had to completely restart due to villagers not executing some precariously timed maneuver, and they were usually because I built the target area up in a peculiar way (lava stacked on lava stacked on explosive trees stacked on lava, filled with dirt and doused with water, repeated until it looks right), which can understandably make mapping the area for a machine extremely tricky, and even then, the vast majority of the time, my villagers would stalwartly make their way to their destination, even if it was unnecessarily circuitous.
Mechanics killed me a lot more than AI.  Especially fire.  Forest fires are obscenely devastating.  They spread like a wildfire through a forest of firecrackers.  To make things worse, plants grow at exactly the same rate as fire burns, so they'll get into loops of perpetual tribesman death (who fearlessly charge to rebuild their burning village, only to have it burn again as soon as it gets built, ad nauseum).  That's my biggest complaint, but on the plus side the controls were incredibly intuitive (aside from the left and right mouse buttons being the opposite of the "natural", but that's an easy fix in the controls menu).  The AI was spectacular, given the load that it was under, and all in all, the environmental effects felt so natural and compelling, it was incredibly easy to just powertrip for a few hours, playing god, and that's the best part about games like these.  Gameplay warrants an 8.5, a hesitant 9.  Far and away one of the best sandbox games I've played since Tropico.  Overall, From Dust is a solid addition to your library, and it's a bargain- a brand new game, for only $15 without a discount at Steam.  Buy it.  You won't regret it, and hopefully you'll encourage more games like it in the future.  Final rating: 8.2.

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